It’s almost impossible to not feel terrible for young Zach Whitecloud today. On the flip side, he’s a 23-year-old kid who is pretty darn resilient and he’ll get over it. The first-ever member of the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation to play in the NHL, Whitecloud only cracked the AAA lineup in Brandon on his third try. He was undrafted in both the Western League and NHL drafts and he was one of the last cuts from Canada’s 2018 Olympic team.
But to watch Whitecloud do the skate of shame after the Dallas Stars scored on the power play in overtime to end the Vegas Golden Knights’ dreams for a Stanley Cup, man, that was tough to watch. It does seem rather inequitable that while one guy can get away with five crosschecks to an opponent’s back, another gets sent to the penalty box in overtime for inadvertently knocking the puck over the glass and out of play.
There was no question of Whitecloud’s lack of intent. Even the most diabolical hockey player on the planet could not have planned to chip the puck over the glass the way Whitecloud did at the 2:15 mark of overtime in Game 5 of the Western Conference final. It was a complete accident. Whitecloud was simply trying to break up a play and things went sideways.
The chorus of chants lamenting this ‘dumb rule’ could be heard far and wide. But it’s not a dumb rule. It’s a great one. One of the best the NHL has implemented in the past 20 years. And what people have to realize is that intent was never, ever at the heart of this rule when it was passed during the 2004-05 lockout that wiped out the NHL season. At the time, the NHL was in the midst of The Dead Puck Era™ and it was looking for ways to encourage more offense. The NHL is no longer in that dreadful dark ages of play, but goals are still very, very hard to score in this league.
The thinking at the time was that penalizing any puck over the glass, intentional or not, with a minor penalty, would force the defenseman trying to clear the zone under duress to make a skill play, rather than risk chipping it off the glass for an easy zone exit. Without that option open to him, he’s more likely to turn it over and there’s more likely a scoring chance. This rule has always been about creating more offense in the game. And while it’s often the result of an honest mistake, sometimes you have to pay for your honest mistakes, the same way you do when you accidentally clip an opponent in the mouth with your stick.
To lessen the impact of the infraction by making it less than a minor penalty or giving the on-ice officials discretion to decide whether or not it was intentional would completely undermine the intent of the rule. It would also change the way defensemen approach these situations. And, invariably, it would result in more pucks going over the glass and fewer offensive opportunities.
And let us, please, dispense immediately with the notion that the Golden Knights lost the series because of that call. The Golden Knights lost the series because they scored eight goals in five games. Full stop. They lost because they were unable to create enough offense and were flummoxed in two straight series by goalies who were punching way above their weight. But it was up to them to make life more difficult for them, particularly Anton Khudobin of the Stars, who had to stop lots and lots of shots, but not enough where he was looking through traffic or having to move around his crease.
Fans of the Golden Knights should not be upset about the puck-over-glass rule, just as their real target should not have been the botched major penalty they took in Game 7 of their first-round defeat to the San Jose Sharks in 2019. In both cases, the Golden Knights lost because they could not close the deal. Last year, they had a 3-1 lead in the series and a 3-0 lead in Game 7, a game they had to play because they gave up a shorthanded goal in overtime of Game 6. This year, they had a 2-0 lead midway through the third period of Game 5 and could not hold the lead.
If you’re a Vegas fan and you really want to blast the NHL, point out the fact that the game should have never gone into overtime in the first place. On the Stars’ first goal, two referees watched while Alexander Radulov wiped out Vegas defenseman Nate Schmidt with a crosscheck in front of the net just prior to Jamie Benn scoring. They didn’t make the call because, for whatever reasons, NHL officials almost never call crosschecking.
They blatantly ignored the NHL rulebook on that one. In overtime, they had no choice but to follow it because it was a black-and-white call with no room for interpretation. Both times it went against the Golden Knights. And that’s too bad, but it’s not reason enough to get rid of a rule that has a very clear and very deliberate intent.